By Tuan Nguyen
Posting in Technology
U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have added a new GPS-powered weapon to their arsenal.
U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have added a new GPS-guided weapon to their arsenal.
Born out of the army's Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative program or APMI, the high-tech cartridges were sent to a combat team last month, with seven more infantry units slated to receive them within the next six months.
Mortar weaponry can be thought of as a portable, modern equivalent of war cannons. While the technology is simpler to operate and well-suited for trench warfare, its most notable drawback has always been what tended to be a low accuracy rate in hitting targets, such as bunkers. To compensate, commanders are often forced to bombard enemies with several rounds of ammunition.
Insurgents have taken advantage of this inherent flaw by deliberately attacking highly populated areas, which makes it difficult for armed forces to fend them off without risking the destruction of property and civilian casualties.
Similar to other standard mortar shells, the APMI XM395 cartridge consists of highly explosive material housed inside a 120mm projectile body. But it's also equipped with a GPS receiver located in the nose, computer-controlled aerodynamic directional fins to keep the round on a programmed trajectory and folding fins in the tail to ensure stability.
Souping up a mortar cartridge with all these high-tech upgrades allows it to achieve an accuracy requirement of 10 meters CEP or Circular Error Probable. This simply means that if you drew a circle around an enemy target at 10 meters radius, the rounds would fall inside the circle at least half of the time.
Soldiers carry around 25 high-explosive rounds to take out a target. A more precise weapon would reduce the need for reloading and allows troops to be more mobile.
"Typically mortars are fired in volleys against an area target because of their inherent inaccuracy, but with APMI, you have the potential to destroy a target with only one or two rounds," says Peter Burke, deputy product manager of PEO Ammunition.
Such improved accuracy also gives commanders the ability to hit a target cleanly or at least with limited collateral damage.
Patti Alameda, competency manager of the Mortar and Common Fire Control Systems Division admitted that military personally dealt with many "technological hurdles" in developing the weapon systems, but considers the end result well worth it.
"The ability of people to work as a team and integrate all of the sophisticated technology in a way that reduces the burden on the soldier is really how we achieve this leap forward in capability," Alameda says.
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Photo: U.S. Army
Apr 6, 2011
Didn't we learn in the Vietnam War that technology gave the U.S. no edge. Apparently not. To say that GPS gives us an "edge" is to presume the other side is fighting the same kind of war as we are. The Viet Cong weren't. The "Taliban" are not now. News item today: Amputations for American fighting personnel in the Middle East wars are much higher than in any previous U.S. war. How's GPS going to stop IEDs (road-side bombs)?
Afghanistan is a "low intensity conflict" for the US & it's allies so the cost-benefit equation is different from a conventional war, on offense. 10 ordinary rounds may be cheaper than 1 smart round, but if 9 of those ordinary rounds blow up civilians in the houses surrounding the target, then the smart round is the difference between the mortar being useful & not useful. On defense, you can use the smart round on an attacker much closer to you than you can use an ordinary round, without danger of a friendly fire incident. That can mean the difference between life & death for a small unit surprised by a larger force at close range. In Afghanistan, US & allied troops regularly have relatively long distance firefights. The current way of putting explosive on target is the Javelin missile. It's very effective, but it's also heavy & very expensive. The XM395 is less expensive but, more importantly, troops can leave their Javelins behind. That narrows the gap in foot speed. The good guys wear heavy body armor, the bad guys don't. Although Hates Idiots may have served in a unit that parceled out it's mortars to platoons, the 60 mm mortar is a company level weapon in both the Army & the USMC. The 120 mm mortar is a company & battalion level weapon in Stryker battalions, a battalion level weapon in infantry & combined arms battalions, and, soon, a regimental level weapon in the USMC. British & British pattern armies have the 51 mm mortar at platoon level.
Mortars have always been used as a platoon level area support weapon. Although a good mortar crew under ideal conditions can drop 3 mortar rounds in a 20-meter radius they were not normally called on for precise targeting. And combat conditions tend to be less than ideal. The question here needs to be, is a mortar the best weapon for the job? When I was in the service the 83mm SMAW was the weapon of choice for bunkers or fortified houses. The SMAW II firing NE rounds is more accurate than a mortar round with 10 m accuracy, almost as damaging and I will bet the rounds cost less than this does. The only thing the mortar has on the SMAW in this situation is range, but in urban areas the buildings usually negate the effectiveness of extended range weapons. The SMAW II can also be fired out windows from within enclosed spaces. Something that is very difficult to do with a mortar.
Current military GPS hardware is notoriously prone to failure due to battery use. A lot of solders carry off the shelf GPS because the ones they have use battery power so bad.
The GPS enabled round that reduces the need to fire multiple rounds to hit the target is a good way to reduce costs. The main drawback I can see is the possibility of relying more on technology than good tactics. Technology can give a better edge in battle but only when used with a good battle plan.
Of course, the effectiveness of this weapon assumes that you have a precise lat/lon for the target, which probably requires a very expensive drone (maps being insufficiently precise). My guess is that the cost per round is slightly less than the 23 standard rounds allegedly saved, although the prospect of limiting collateral damage may make even that cost-benefit ratio meaningless. Thanks for the series on where our defense dollars are going.
How does the cost compare (as others indicated)? What happens if the GPS system is taken out in a large scale war or the rounds themselves are socked with an EMP that makes the electronics toast? Do these rounds become useless or do they revert to standard rounds? I see an awful amount of reliance on GPS in the military. I certainly hope there is a backup plan to the loss of that and that soldiers and sailors know how to live without it.
(quote)lindted@... How does the cost of this round compare to a standard round?(quote) If they tell you that they would have to kill you....